Hyper-hush surrounds 2010 Games mascots 'til Tuesday
Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, November 24, 2007
On Tuesday, the biggest Olympic secret since Vanoc's unveiling of its Inukshuk logo two years ago will be revealed when the mascots for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics are made public.
The drama has been building. Websites and blogs have been speculating on what inevitably cuddly, cute creatures the Vancouver Organizing Committee has come up with.
What's at stake is an indelible image Vanoc wants recognized around the world, representative of British Columbia and Canada. They want mascots that will tie children and youth into the Olympic movement and to the Winter Games.
They also expect the mascots to drive their marketing and licence revenues.
On Wednesday morning licensees will stock stores with every manner of mascot-branded toy, clothing and trinket.
There has already been a frenzy among memorabilia collectors who have tried to get tickets to the unveiling at the Bell Performing Arts Centre in Surrey. Some have gone so far as to ask reporters if they can work as their assistants.
In response, hyper-secrecy has been the order of the day; Vanoc has kept details off Internet-enabled computers and hidden them from search engines that scour patent and trademark databases around the world.
Vanoc has kept most of its staff in the dark. Only slightly more than a dozen employees and executives, the design team and a few close-mouthed sponsors who needed to develop pin designs know the details. Even people working with the design team who don't need access to the images haven't been shown them.
Vanoc is even reluctant to take reporters' calls about the design and process. The launch, as Dave Cobb, Vanoc's executive vice-president of marketing and communications, says, is one of the signature events in the run-up to the Games, and the principle of "loose lips sink ships" has been practised to high art form.
In one unintended hint, Vanoc CEO John Furlong once referred to the mascots in a speech as "critters." We also know that the winning submission came from a pair of graphic designers, location unknown, whose bid was among 178 submissions professional designers made to Vanoc last September.
So, with all that in mind, what else is known about the mascots?
Well, there are at least two -- one for the Olympics and one for the Paralympics. There might possibly be more, but Vanoc won't say if it is following in the steps of other Games committees that have chosen multiple mascots.
They will also have two legs. They have to, in order for humans to operate them. Even if they are, speculatively speaking, four-legged sea otters or Vancouver Island marmots, two-finned beluga whales or a first nations-inspired thunderbird with wings.
Will they be uniquely identifiable as British Columbian? After all, even Premier Gordon Campbell has weighed in, suggesting the white kermode bear of B.C.'s central coast would be appropriate.
Vanoc is keeping mum. But Ali Gardiner, Vanoc's director of brand and creative services, does say the winning designs are ones that Canadians will adopt as their own and yet have regional characteristics that people in any province can accept.
"A good mascot can help reveal a side of your country and tell a story of the Games that will really appeal to children, and also to adults and youth."
Most importantly they will have character. Vanoc has spent a lot of time developing the back story for each mascot, testing them with groups of children around North America. It was fairly easy to find what Gardiner called "the magic factor."
"There were a lot of concepts that were popular, but there were a few we could tell really just captured peoples' imaginations," she said. "You would hear them talking about them as if they were a family member or friend."
Vanoc winnowed through more than 20 concepts. The names and images were also screened for unintended meanings in all the world's languages and cultures.
It's a task Fraser Bullock, the former CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake Games, says is critical if the committee wants to avoid a cultural disaster.
"You have to run all the traps so that you don't offend a culture or a country with a name you didn't realize had a different meaning," he said.
Bullock, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee's Vancouver Coordination Commission, said he hasn't seen Vanoc's designs.
Mascots are supposed to be something that "ties to the culture, to the land, something about your community, province or state," said Bullock. For example, Salt Lake created three mascots, Powder (a hare), Copper (coyote), and Coal (a bear) that represented the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius, or Faster, Higher, Stronger, as well as snow and the two primary resources of Utah.
"What we were trying to accomplish was to create greater affiliation with the Games, and at the same time tie it to our local identity," he said. Vanoc is not giving any hints about the form or type, other than to say that they won't be fantastic creations of the mind that have no connection to animals, minerals or elements.
In the history of the Olympics and Paralympics, only the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games ventured into the realm of the fantastic, creating a mascot out of nothing, an amorphous blue blob that even its creators had trouble defining. They even settled on a name, "Whatizit," which became shortened to "Izzy," while wags wanted to call it "Whoneedzit" and "Getridofit."
Gardiner smiled ruefully when asked if she's prepared for the inevitable satirization of the mascots. Satire will only get people talking about the mascots, and that's not a bad idea, she said.
"Oh, we kind of expect that to happen. We try to not make that too easy," she said. "But I don't expect it will be more than five minutes before something is on the Internet."
OLYMPIC MASCOTS -- FRIENDLY, POPULAR, OR NOT
Ask a dozen people which Olympic mascots they like, and risk getting a dozen different answers. But there are some images that have gone down in history as either the most favoured, or the most disliked.
- The 1992 Barcelona Summer Games may not rank as the most memorable, but it seems its mascot, Cobi the dog, is.
Cobi is repeatedly cited by designers, organizing committees and creative directors as hitting the "sweet spot" with people. With its Picassoesque face and cheeky attitude, it became such a beloved character that on the 10th anniversary of the Games it was still revered as an idol, according to Ali Gardiner, Vanoc's director of brand and creative services.
- At the other end of the spectrum is Izzy, the blue mythic creature picked by the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games organizers. Although it sold well in stores, it didn't garner much respect. Even Simpsons creator Matt Groening described Izzy to Sports Illustrated as a "bad marriage of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin."
- The first official Olympic mascot was Waldi the dachshund of the 1972 Munich Summer Games. But the first unofficial one was "Schuss," a man on skis, which debuted at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games.
- Canada weighed in with the second official mascot, Amik the beaver, in 1976 in Montreal. Twelve years later, Calgary broke new ground with the introduction of Hidy and Howdy, a pair of polar bears, the first multiple mascots, and gender-specific at that.
- The 2008 Beijing Games have moved to a new level with the creation of five Olympic ring-coloured mascots. Called the Friendlies, they represent four animals (fish, panda bear, Tibetan antelope, swallow) and the Olympic flame.
- In 2006, Turin, Italy, was the first Olympic Games to use mascots that weren't animals or human beings. Neve was a snowball and Gliz an ice cube. Their Paralympic partner was Aster, the one-legged snowflake.
In the history of mascots, parody is a matter of fact. Turin's mascots were turned into political and risque objects by artists around the world. And Australians poked fun of their three Sydney 2000 mascots, Olly, Syd and Millie (a kookaburra, platypus and echidna) with the creation of Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat, an unofficial mascot that quickly became more popular.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007